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One of my favorite activist stories is the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. Never heard of it? That’s because it only lasted a week and didn’t accomplish much. But a few years later, when Rosa Parks got arrested for refusing to change her seat on the bus, and the Black community of Montgomery launched a bus boycott, activists in Baton Rouge called up folks in Montgomery and shared what they had learned from their experience. They recommended setting up a system to get people rides to work so they could sustain the boycott — advice that enabled Montgomery’s boycott to last over a year. That campaign not only desegregated Montgomery’s buses, it launched nonviolent direct action as a key tool of the civil rights movement, and turned Martin Luther King Jr. into its most visible leader.
It’s in the spirit of helping the broader climate movement learn from our mistakes that I share reflections on the Power Local Green Jobs campaign, launched by Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT, in September 2015. The six-year campaign pushed Pennsylvania’s largest electric utility to take unprecedented steps toward solar, while falling far short of our complex and ambitious demands. One of the biggest lessons for me was that to have the maximum effect, demands need to be inspirational, achievable and easy for the public to understand.
EQAT was feeling confident coming off our March 2015 victory, getting PNC Bank to pull out of financing mountaintop removal coal mining. We felt clear that we wanted to choose another campaign that challenged a corporation contributing to climate change, but this time we felt called to center racial justice and push for a new, more just energy economy — not just oppose a bad practice. After considering a few other campaign options, we set out to pressure southeastern Pennsylvania’s electric utility PECO to spur local solar and do it in a way that especially benefited low-income communities of color through jobs and solar ownership. Although the term “Green New Deal” had not yet become popularized, the concept had already emerged from Black and Brown communities that the green energy economy could also provide economic opportunity.
Building pressure, but not power
When we began the campaign, only 0.144 percent of PECO’s default electricity came from solar — the state-required minimum — and there was no requirement for it to be generated locally. Although PECO does not produce the energy it delivers, we argued that the company could create local green jobs by incentivizing local solar in its procurement process, specifying North Philadelphia, a historic Black community with high poverty and unemployment, as the place to start. To convey the urgency we felt around both poverty and climate change, we demanded that 20 percent of PECO’s electricity come from local solar by 2025.
Our intersectional focus soon attracted a partner in the campaign, POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild), an interracial and interfaith organization with Black leadership. More than one pastor in North Philadelphia told us how they would love to install solar panels and use the money they saved on electric bills to fund youth programs or meet other community needs. Other North Philadelphians mentioned the need for good jobs. We felt encouraged that we were on the right track and emphasized the potential for rooftop solar to especially help communities.
Meanwhile, EQAT started hearing from a few people who do energy advocacy that what we were asking PECO to do was “impossible,” both because rooftop solar was more expensive than utility scale solar, and because of various regulations. This feedback contradicted our theory of change, which was based on the belief that corporations have more power than they let on, including the power to influence regulators and legislators. We held that PECO could do what we wanted if they were sufficiently motivated by nonviolent direct action. In hindsight, these advocates were pointing to real issues that we needed to face.
For starters, PECO had to get its energy procurement plans approved — both by its parent company, Exelon, and by the Public Utility Commission, or PUC, an agency tasked with balancing the needs of consumers and utilities. Furthermore, the Pennsylvania legislature had made community solar illegal, a prime mechanism to make solar available to low-income people on a large scale. This multiplicity of actors complicated our demands for PECO, which in turn made it easier for PECO to deflect responsibility.
While we were right to point out that PECO was an influential lobbyist at both the PUC and the legislature — and could push for the changes needed — we underestimated how the regulatory complexity weakened our narrative and strengthened their claims that we were out of touch and unrealistic. Whether or not the barriers were insurmountable, the perceived barriers became a narrative problem for us. This showed up early on when the CEO of PECO met with a well-known local sustainability advocate and told her that we wanted PECO to do something illegal because the company was legally bound to provide the cheapest energy possible to its customers. “I don’t want to end up in an orange jumpsuit,” then CEO Craig Adams joked.
Adams claims were spurious, but they were more effective than our responses. We pointed out that solar prices were dropping, and some studies showed that solar was actually a cost-saver when it replaced the inefficient generating stations cranked up to cover peak load on a hot day. Furthermore, the PUC was supposed to balance the need for reasonable rates and environmental protection. If solar was more expensive, we argued, the cost should be borne by PECO, which netted over a million dollars a day from a region with the poorest big city in the United States. Finally, we pointed out the high social cost of asthma, cancer and climate chaos — all externalized costs of the fossil fuel economy, which were disproportionately borne by communities of color. None of these made as punchy a sound bite as Adams’ assertion that we wanted him to break the law by raising rates.
Despite these challenges, in the first year, we organized frequent creative nonviolent actions, such as a 75-person dance party on PECO’s plaza with the slogan “PECO get moving!” The company did take some steps, first by calling for a Solar Stakeholder Collaborative, a meeting of people in the region with a stake in solar. Far more people responded than the company expected, including solar contractors who complained that PECO was far behind other utilities in facilitating solar installation. Within a year of our campaign launch, PECO started addressing these issues and designed some low-income solar pilot projects they hoped would be paid for by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. When the Trump administration eliminated that funding, PECO’s pilot projects quietly disappeared.
Even the iconic Montgomery Bus Boycott did not have their demands perfectly figured out when they started.
We had built enough pressure for PECO to feel that it needed to do something about solar, but not enough power that it felt it had to spend significant amounts of its own money, or the money of parent company Exelon. To build that kind of power, we would have needed to grow in either numbers, boldness or both. While we did attract 200 people to the final mile of a 100-mile walk in 2017, most actions were much smaller. We might have done more to engage EQAT’s Quaker base, but they did not seem as energized as they had been during our campaign against PNC. Likewise, while EQAT’s partnership with POWER leadership was always amicable, the campaign never seemed to resonate with their larger base. We had a faithful, persistent core, but didn’t recruit enough beyond it to build our power and make sure PECO felt our pressure.
As the company started locking us out of their lobby and then roping off their plaza, we struggled to find ways to escalate. Showing up for Craig Adams’ public appearances clearly rattled him, but they weren’t frequent enough to be a major threat. Interrupting Exelon’s 2019 shareholder meeting got us a meeting with Adams’ replacement, CEO Mike Innocenzo and other executives, but a promised meeting with his Exelon boss, Chris Crane, was canceled after we dropped a banner from PECO’s roof that said, “The climate is changing. Why isn’t PECO?” Including the banner drop, in which two people were arrested, only four of the 93 actions in the campaign included civil disobedience. The pandemic made this even harder, as there were so few opportunities for direct public challenge.
Accomplishments amidst the mistakes
Although there are many factors that contribute to a campaign’s success, I eventually came to believe that our demands were part of the problem. They were both too big and too small. While policy advocates complained that 20 percent local solar by 2025 was impossible, we started to hear from other climate organizers that it was far too small, especially compared to 100 percent — the 2050 renewable energy goal that had grown in popularity since we started the campaign. This dynamic put us into explaining mode, even with our own members, where we had to say things like “The 20 percent is JUST solar and JUST local. It’s prioritizing local ownership and local jobs.” Rather than sound like visionaries, we came off as small, defensive and wonky in our defense of this number — even though it was an incredibly ambitious goal given the parameters we put around it, including the target date. As a result, our demands didn’t resonate with either the visionaries or the bureaucrats.
This had two practical effects on the campaign. First, it’s already hard to inspire people to take bold risks when you’re criticizing your target for not doing something good that they are not legally required to do. It’s even harder when you’re talking about peak load and the regulations around energy procurement. Our demand language just didn’t have the same emotional resonance as our first campaign, which was about stopping the horrific act of blowing up Appalachian mountains for coal profits. Second, we never had advocates playing an inside role, telling PECO that our demands were reasonable. Having that kind of backup — like we did during our PNC campaign — might have amplified the effectiveness of our actions, which continued until 2021, when EQAT decided to shift focus to a new campaign.
Despite these obstacles, the Power Local Green Jobs campaign did accomplish several things. It taught EQAT’s predominantly white, middle-class base a lot about racism and poverty, while inspiring POWER’s climate justice team to take on the utility regulator and some of the issues that were obstacles to a just energy economy. They continue this work under the Power Local Green Jobs name. In terms of PECO, in addition to streamlining the process of installing solar for customers, the company hired staff for a new solar department, consulted with other utilities doing more solar, pledged to upgrade the grid, made significant donations to solar jobs training and, in an unprecedented move, sought proposals for purchasing its state-required amount of solar from within its service territory. These steps far exceeded what it was doing before and laid the groundwork for more solar potential in the future, even though the scale fell far short of what we’d hoped for. As one leading solar contractor summarized, “Before your campaign, PECO was 20 years behind other utilities. Now, they are only 10 years behind.”
Interestingly, most of the things PECO did were not things we demanded, though they were clearly motivated by our campaign. If I were starting this campaign from scratch today, I might still choose PECO and the intersection of racial and economic justice, but I’d focus on demands that they could meet more directly. Winning concrete things matters, and it helps to build movement momentum. For example, if we had demanded solar job training for low-income people of color from the get-go, we could have touted that as a clear win a few years into the campaign, even if we were still pushing for more ambitious demands, too. Instead of focusing on their highly regulated procurement process, we could have demanded that PECO fund a Philadelphia solar rebate program, prioritizing low-income customers and specifying Philadelphia-based solar contractors with diverse workforces. We could even have demanded that they start lobbying for state bills promoting solar rather than against them, an issue most people understand more easily than the Public Utility Commission.
It’s helpful to remember that even the iconic Montgomery Bus Boycott did not have their demands perfectly figured out when they started. In fact, they initially focused on the rule that said Rosa Parks had to move out of the middle section of the bus when more white people came on. It was only when they felt the power of their community rise up against the injustice of segregation that they realized they needed to demand total bus desegregation, not just a tweak in the rules.
In this time when the need for dramatic change is so urgent, I hope other campaigns can learn from our experience that demands need to be inspiring, achievable and easily understandable. Effective demands are not enough, but they are important to galvanizing the kinds of campaigns strong enough to win them.